How People Change: Classical Conditioning Vs Operant Conditioning

Have you ever stopped and wondered what it would take to successfully change those negative habits you’ve always held on to? It might seem like it’s impossible, and that you’re doomed to the same old story for your whole life. But you don’t have to be!

People do this kind of thing all the time and the truth is that creating change in your life is fairly straightforward.

Listen to this blog post on the Tiny Leaps, Big Changes podcast:

How People Change Pt 1 | How People Change Pt 2

Ultimately it comes down to a repeatable process focused on changing your behavior and, like any other process, it’s something you can learn to get better at.

For those that take the time to learn it and develop their skills, changing their habits and developing a new behavior becomes incredibly easy.

But to create those desired changes you do have to work at it, focus on learning all of the steps it involves, and practice the skills required to change habits and produce desired behaviors.

In this article, we’ll dive deep into this process so you can learn it, step-by-step. We’ll explore how people change their habits and behavior, what classical conditioning vs operant conditioning is, how they work, and how to use them to your advantage.

We’ll then look at the differences and similarities between classical and operant conditioning and how you can use both together as part of your behavior change stack.

Finally, we’ll create your step-by-step process for reinforcing desired behavior, developing positive habits, and hacking your psychology to benefit you.

Let’s get started.

How People Change

When you dive into it, the fundamental requirements for how people change lies in changing their beliefs, changing their behavior, or changing their environment.

Changing Your Beliefs

As we age, the beliefs we have about ourselves and the world around us play a large role in who we become as an individual.

For example, if you grow up believing that people around you are inherently bad and that you should be afraid, you are more likely to be guarded as you get older. This in turn makes it difficult to form deep connections with the people around you.

There are several beliefs that one might hold on to as they age, things picked up as a child that just sticks with you, but given the role they play in who we become our beliefs become a critical area to affect change when trying to improve ourselves as individuals.

Changing Your Environment

An individual’s environment is composed of five main elements: their social circle, the places they go to and visit, the people they interact with daily, what influences them through media like TV or movies, and lastly their home. This environment plays a huge role in who you are during your day-to-day life.

If your social circle for example is primarily composed of people who eat healthily, you will be more likely to also eat healthily. Similarly, if you are driving past fast-food restaurants every day on your way home from work, you increase your likelihood of stopping one day for lunch or dinner.

In this way, your environment can play a role in creating who you are.

Changing Your Behavior

The final piece worth looking at, and the one we are going to explore in-depth in this article, is changing your behavior.

Your day-to-day behavior plays a huge role in who you are. It affects how you feel, what your lifestyle is like, and it impacts other areas of your life as well. Your actions also affect the options you have in your life and the opportunities you can take advantage of.

For example, if you regularly skip breakfast, your energy levels will be lower and you’ll have trouble focusing on the tasks at hand. This can then lead to overeating or eating unhealthy foods because they are what is available when you get hungry.

In this way, skipping breakfast can lead to a bad habit of eating poorly. Eating poorly can then lead to weight gain which can lead to health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

One simple habit of skipping breakfast can lead to enormous issues that then affect the rest of your life and are challenging to come back from.

Similarly, you also need to consider how other people’s actions affect you. This idea shows up when looking at the effects of your environment as well but you could be getting influenced by negative behavior patterns without even realizing it.

For example, if one of your friends always complains about being tired and rundown then chances are you’ll start feeling this way too. That feeling can then lead to other behaviors and before you know it you are living a life that you never really planned.

But it doesn’t have to be that way because, as I said at the beginning of the article, changing your behavior can be a fairly straightforward process.

To make it happen, we have to first start by understanding two important aspects of psychology, Classical Conditioning, and Operant Conditioning.

What is Classical Conditioning?

Classical conditioning is a principle of psychology that has to do with how we react to certain stimuli.

To explain how it works we need to define some key terms.

Classical Conditioning Key Terms

Unconditioned Stimulus: An unconditioned stimulus is something that naturally triggers a reflex or an emotion.

Spicy food, for example, will make you feel the hot sensation and your mouth may water. This is a natural response that most people have to spicy foods without being taught or “conditioned” to respond that way.

Neutral Stimulus: A neutral stimulus is something that does not naturally trigger a reflex or an emotion.

Seeing a glass of water, for example, doesn’t normally trigger any particular response or associations on its own. It’s a perfectly bland or “neutral” stimulus.

Conditioned Stimulus: A conditioned stimulus is something that would not have been a reflex or triggered an emotion on its own, but has become associated with something else. Conditioned stimuli are typically created from taking Neutral stimuli and pairing them with the Unconditioned Stimulus.

Unconditioned Response: An unconditioned response is something that is an instinctual and reflexive response to something. The most common example of this would be a reaction to the sight or smell of food, which triggers hunger. This is the response that typically happens to an Unconditioned Stimulus.

Conditioned Response: A conditioned response is the response created after pairing an Unconditioned Stimulus, Unconditioned Response, and Neutral Stimulus.

Let’s explore this further by looking at how Classical Conditioning works.

How Classical Conditioning Works

The Classical Conditioning process works by pairing a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus to create a conditioned response.

The classic example of this can be seen in Pavlov’s famous experiment

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian scientist who experimented to find out how classical conditioning works.

During an experiment with dogs, Pavlov noticed that every time he gave his dog food, the dog would salivate in response (Unconditioned Stimulus). One day, he saw his dogs start to salivate when they heard the footsteps of his workers coming with food and he recognized that he stumbled onto a huge discovery.

The dogs were having the same response before they could even see the food.

He wanted to explore this discovery further so Pavlov started ringing a bell before giving the food to the dogs and found that eventually, the sound of the bell alone would cause them to salivate (Conditioned Response).

By using the natural relationship between food and dogs salivating he was able to use a different, neutral stimulus, to produce the same response.

What Classical Conditioning Means For Behavior Change

Classical Conditioning holds an enormous amount of value when used as a tool to change behavior.

By better understanding the relationship between your stimuli (both conditioned and natural) and their responses (both conditioned and natural) you can start to gain real insight into what situations to avoid if your goal is to change certain behaviors.

Let’s say, for example, that you want to kick a sugar craving. You’d first want to look at the Unconditioned Stimulus and the Unconditioned Response. If you remember from the earlier definitions, this is the natural stimulus-response pairing.

For this example let’s pretend that your vice is chocolate cake, it’s natural for you to smell a chocolate cake and to respond with a craving for it.

Great, so we’ve got an idea of what our regular response looks like. Now we need to add a neutral stimulus to the mix. The goal of this stimulus is to take something that doesn’t currently have any association with that craving response and create that association by piggybacking on the existing stimulus.

To do this, we’ll need to place the neutral stimulus BEFORE the unconditioned or natural stimulus that we’re working with.

So, according to Classical Conditioning, if we have a natural hunger response to the smell of chocolate cake we may be able to create the same hunger response to the sight of a salad if we regularly see a salad before smelling the cake and having the response.

Does Classical Conditioning Work?

The truth is, it can, but it certainly won’t be that easy. Getting yourself to crave salads is probably not going to be as straightforward as putting a salad in front of you when you know you are going to smell chocolate cake. That’d be ridiculous.

But even though this particular use case may be a bit far-fetched, you’ve already had your behavior changed by Classical Conditioning by any number of brands.

A perfect example of this is the mouth-watering effect that people experience when they see a giant yellow M logo. Have you ever stopped wondering why that happens?

How did a random burger chain create such a deep association between their logo, their color, and the feeling of being hungry? The answer is by using salt and the Classical Conditioning process.

Here’s how it worked:

Humans have a natural (or Unconditioned) response to salt in our food. We almost universally perceive foods that are higher in salt as more delicious than foods without.

This natural response can lead to craving foods that we know are saltier.

Now, it just so happens that McDonalds (and every fast-food company) needed to make their foods saltier to make them taste better.

So here we have an Unconditioned Stimulus in the form of salty food, and an Unconditioned Response in the form of feeling hungry or your mouth water.

Now, as we just learned, to turn that Unconditioned Response into a Conditioned Response, you need a Neutral Stimulus. That Neutral Stimulus also needs to occur right before the Unconditioned Stimulus for the association to be made. Finally, the process has to be repeated several times.

So let me ask you this, what do you typically see right before you smell the food from McDonalds or before biting into something you’ve ordered? It’s that big yellow M.

This M is the Neutral Stimulus and, with that, all of the conditions are met to create an association between the McDonalds logo, and the feeling of being hungry.

So the question of whether or not Classical Conditioning works for influencing behavior is kind of a silly one. Multiple billion-dollar companies have used it to create new behaviors or change behaviors in their customers.

The real question needs to be, how do we use Classical Conditioning on ourselves? In this vein, I think it’s more powerful when used as a tool for gathering insight.

Given its emphasis on stimuli and response, Classical Conditioning can give you valuable knowledge about what stimuli are tied to what responses and what you should be trying to avoid during your behavior change process.

Going back to our McDonalds example, if you know that you tend to crave McDonalds when you see their logo, and you happen to drive past one on your way home from work each day, then consider choosing to change your route.

Doing so is one decision you can make to avoid the influence and increase your likelihood of achieving any nutrition or fitness-based goals. But making that decision requires being able to critically analyze the response you’ve been conditioned to have.

In this way, Classical Conditioning becomes a valuable tool in your toolkit to change behavior and help you stay consistent with your goals.

But that’s not where the process of changing behavior ends. Let’s take a look at another form of conditioning known as Operant Conditioning.

What is Operant Conditioning?

Operant Conditioning is the process of changing behavior by strengthening desired behaviors and weakening undesired ones. This reinforcement occurs through a system of rewards and punishments that encourage behavior or discourage the behavior.

Unlike Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning can be fairly easy to understand because it tells you what it is in the name. The word operant is defined as “an item of behavior that is initially spontaneous, rather than a response to a prior stimulus, but whose consequences may reinforce or inhibit recurrence of that behavior.”

Put simply, Operant Conditioning is about conditioning your behavior. In other words, trying to get certain behaviors repeated and other behaviors stopped.

Now let’s define some key components of Operant Conditioning.

Operant Conditioning Key Terms

Neutral Operant: A Neutral Operant is what we call a behavior that does not result in any type of consequence.

Reinforcement: Reinforcement is anything the environment does that increases the probability of a behavior being repeated.

Reinforcements from the environment come in two forms: positive and negative.

Positive reinforcement comes in the form of rewarding some type of behavior. Negative reinforcement comes in the form of removing some type of obstacle in response to the behavior.

Both are effective at changing how people behave over time by either increasing or decreasing occurrences of those behaviors respectively.

Punishers: Punishment is a form of negative reinforcement which decreases the likelihood that an undesirable behavior will be repeated.

How Operant Conditioning Works

To break down how Operant Conditioning works, let’s look at the lab environment.

Research may start by teaching a behavior to an animal. This behavior could be anything but the most commonly used in experiments is to press a button of some kind.

Next, the controlled environment will reward that behavior with some type of reinforcement. This reinforcement may be positive or negative depending on the circumstances.

The experiment will then repeat this process over time to produce a positive association with the behavior and increase the likelihood of the behavior being repeated.

Over time, this process will teach the animal to repeat the behavior to gain whatever benefit is being offered.

What Operant Conditioning Means for Behavior Change

When applying this process to how people change it’s a simple approach of rewarding the behaviors we want to repeat and punishing the behaviors we want to avoid.

However, to make it work there are a few conditions that need to be met.

Ease Of The Behavior

First, there needs to be sufficient ability to engage in a behavior. If something is difficult to engage in you are far less likely to do it consistently. The harder something is to do, the bigger the reward must be to motivate yourself to do it.

Similarly, the easier something is to do, the lower the reward needs to be to do it.

This has huge consequences when looking at how to break bad habits or build good habits. The unfortunate truth is that many of our bad habits are incredibly easy to do and many of the good habits we want to build are difficult to do. This is part of why it can feel so difficult to change behavior in the long term.

Value Of The Reinforcement or Punishment

When it comes to conditioning a behavior based on reward association two things need to be considered.

First, you have to actually want the reward that is being offered or dislike the punishment. If you don’t have any interest in the potential reward then it won’t serve as a motivator to drive action.

Second, the reward needs to feel like a natural extension of taking the action.

Going back to our lab experiment, the animal is first trained to press the button. When the button is pressed, a treat is dispensed. This happens instantly in response to the button being pressed and, as far as the animal knows, there is no other way to get the reward other than pressing the button.

This close relationship is what allows an association to be made. If the reward happened a few hours or minutes after the button was pressed, or if the animal could also get the reward in some other way, they wouldn’t necessarily associate pressing the button with getting the reward.

Similarly, if the rewards we present ourselves for taking certain actions feel disconnected or can be gained in other ways, the association is far less effective.

Does Operant Conditioning Work?

So the question of whether or not this process can work should be fairly straightforward to answer. The answer is yes, but only if the earlier conditions are met.

Operant Conditioning has already played a major role in your life. If you’ve ever changed your behavior to get better results based on previous results then you’ve used Operant Conditioning.

If you ever burned your hand as a child when touching the stove, you learned that you should be careful around fire. If you ever studied harder or a test after scoring poorly on a test before, then you learned that studying can produce better results.

Operant Conditioning is all around us, it’s the foundation of humanity’s ability to learn and improve as we experience things in this world.

But again, the conditions need to be met for it to work well. Many people give the advice that you should reward yourself with things like a vacation or a sweet treat for doing something good. The truth is that this might help, but it’s not a form of Operant Conditioning because it doesn’t meet the conditions.

A vacation or a sweet treat in response to doing something can’t be tied as a natural association. The relationship between the action and the reward is too spread apart and the reward itself is something you could choose to do without taking the action.

As a result, it doesn’t feel like something that NEEDS to be tied together and therefore does nothing to reinforce the behavior.

In this way, Operant Conditioning can be difficult to consciously use in your behavior change process but it’s certainly possible. The way this can be done is to spend time acknowledging the natural positive rewards or the natural punishments that accompany any action.

For example, if you wanted to build a new flossing habit, rather than inventing a reward to give yourself, you can try to notice the feeling of clean teeth that would naturally be associated with the habit.

This reward would be more connected to the behavior and is only achievable by doing the behavior.

From there, as long as the behavior is easy to engage in (say if you left the floss out by your toothbrush), and you legitimately want to experience that clean feeling, you should be able to teach yourself to do the behavior regularly.

Similarly, if you wanted to break a bad habit like say eating dessert after dinner, you’ll first need to make the habit harder to engage in (by no longer buying them), then you’ll need to acknowledge the natural punishment of a stomach ache or bloat, and finally, you’ll need to care about avoiding that feeling.

Classical Conditioning Vs Operant Conditioning

Each of these methods of changing behavior is powerful if used correctly and they can certainly be used together but there are some important similarities and differences between the two.

Both operant and classical conditioning can use rewards as reinforcement or punishment and both focus on creating associations between behavior and outcomes.

One major difference is that operant conditioning can require more time than classical conditioning because there has to be an additional step involved- acknowledging natural consequences. Since this association can take time it makes change more difficult.

Another major difference between the two is that classical conditioning is largely used to change behaviors that have some kind of internal response like hunger. Whereas operant conditioning requires a person to engage in a certain behavior and, as long as they receive reinforcement or punishment from the environment for doing so, their behavior will continue or cease.

Both methods are powerful but these similarities and differences should be considered before choosing one over the other.

How People Change

Changing your behavior or changing your life may feel like an impossible task but it’s perfectly within your control if you have the right tools.

Classical conditioning and operant conditioning are two powerful methods that can be used to change your behavior as long as you have a good understanding of how they work and how to set them up to your benefit.

Classical conditioning is largely used to change behaviors that have some kind of natural internal response. By associating certain neutral behaviors with positive or negative responses, you can create a natural urge to do certain things in certain contexts. More importantly, you can use your existing associations to make decisions that put you in good positions for achieving the goals you’ve set.

Operant conditioning requires a person to engage in a certain behavior and, as long as they receive reinforcement or punishment from the environment for doing so, their behavior will continue or cease. This is a powerful tool for getting yourself to do certain things or stop doing other things so long as you pay attention to and acknowledge the benefits or drawbacks of these actions.

By learning about these two tools and better understanding how to use them, you can start to create the environment required to create or change any behavior you’d like in your life.